Graduate School of Medical Sciences
A partnership with the Sloan Kettering Institute

Jean Rivera

Tell us about your research.

Our lab is primarily focused on studying the neurophysiology of addiction, anxiety and affective disorders. Given the high degree of comorbidity between addiction and anxiety disorders in women, but the lack in fundamental knowledge about the underpinnings of these neuropsychiatric diseases, we are particularly interested in characterizing the sexually dimorphic neuronal circuits and synaptic mechanisms of addiction and comorbid anxiety/mood disorders.

What are your motivations behind choosing your area of research?

As a child, I spent most of my free time volunteering and giving back to others. This has been a constant theme in my life and I knew that the best thing to do was to incorporate this to my professional and long term goals. I’m a firm believer that in order to excel in something, you must be passionate about it. Combining my passion for science with this drive to help others motivated me to enroll in a Ph.D. program at Weill Cornell. I knew this was the first step in my training, necessary to understand disease at a molecular level and apply that knowledge towards improving the quality of life of the millions afflicted by these prevalent disorders. My motivation lies in the millions of families that are impacted by addiction. The growing addiction epidemic is quite troublesome and understanding the underlying causes of these behaviors is key in solving this global issue.

Why did you choose Weill Cornell for your graduate studies?

There are many reasons to choose Weill Cornell for my graduate studies––from being in one of the greatest and most diverse cities in the world to having some of the most renowned faculty in science, as well as a strong translational research focus. Weill Cornell has an excellent reputation and offers many professional opportunities to its students. Although these are all great features of the graduate programs available at WCGS, the deciding factor for me was the welcoming, inclusive and collaborative environment that is fostered here at Weill Cornell. I have to feel welcomed in a place that I will spend the majority of my time for the next 5-6 years and I am glad that I can call WCGS home.

What sets Weill Cornell apart from other institutions?

I think Weill Cornell is uniquely situated in a great part of New York City. This “science corridor” allows us to have collaborations with great institutes like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Rockefeller University. This diverse and collaborative hub is what makes WCGS so unique, opening the door to countless collaborations and a plethora of professional development opportunities.

What is your favorite aspect of Weill Cornell?

Not only Weill Cornell offers a great balance between research opportunities, great faculty, smart and caring students, but being in New York City in the Upper East Side is the icing on the cake. I was worried that NYC was too hectic and noisy for me to get used to since I’m from the small island of Puerto Rico. But the UES is a great hub that is actually quite tranquil, allowing you to focus on your research and if you want to explore, everything is just a short subway ride away.

What has been your most rewarding experience at Weill Cornell thus far?

I’ve been involved in many activities during my short time at Weill Cornell. I’ve enjoyed all of these experiences, from running experiments with visiting high school students during Big RED STEM day to mentoring students in the lab and helping them find their true passion in science. My most rewarding experience thus far has to be helping run recruitment for the incoming class of 2017. As recruitment chair, I was able to meet a group of wonderful students that I’m proud to call not only my friends, but family.

What is your proudest accomplishment at Weill Cornell thus far?

Being a student representative of the graduate school has been a great way to increase visibility. Heterogeneity in gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and race are known to promote innovation, lead to better problem-solving and are important for long-term economic growth, yet there is a large disparity when it comes to diversity in STEM. This motivated me to get involved with many STEM outreach programs in Puerto Rico, Boston and currently in New York City. Organizing and participating in events like Brain Awareness Week, Rockefeller Science Day, Brain Day, the World Science Festival and Big Red STEM Day gave me a platform to be visible to students from diverse backgrounds. These opportunities allowed me to engage students and provide them with much needed exposure to STEM and the variety of career options available to them, many of which had no previous knowledge of. They also provide a platform for increased visibility as a LGBTQ+scientist, activist and underrepresented minority.

Visibility is key in addressing this issue given that it’s one of the main reasons minorities tend to shy away from science. The lack of role models and the perception that scientific careers aren’t suitable for minorities are prevalent misconceptions. What better way to break down these stereotypes than to see minorities like me talk about our experiences as scientists? I have always and will continue to be passionate about diversity and inclusion in STEM. I am hopeful that these efforts impact the future scientific leaders, bridging this gap in STEM.

Walk us through a typical day as a student at Weill Cornell.

Thankfully I live only a few blocks away from my lab, so getting to work is fairly easy. I usually grab a large cup of iced coffee (regardless of the weather conditions) and head down to 1300 York Avenue to begin my day. After checking my emails and verifying my experimental plan for the week, I begin setting up the behavior room for my rodent behavioral experiments which is where I spend the majority of my time. I am currently preparing for my admission to candidacy exam (ACE) or qualifying exam and spend much of my time reading and writing while balancing experiments.

What are your plans after you graduate?

My overarching goal is to become a successful independent researcher. I aspire to have a role in which I can have the greatest impact, improving the quality of life for those afflicted by drug addiction. My interests are still developing and I have an open mind when it comes to my career track––I see myself in both traditional and non-traditional careers. I am still in the process of figuring out what the best option for me is, but thankfully I’ll have the help of the many mentors and career development opportunities provided by Weill Cornell.

What advice would you offer to other graduate students?

Do what you love and what you are truly passionate about. Graduate school isn’t easy but it is definitely quite rewarding. I am only in the beginning stages of my PhD and I am sure there will be many more bumps in the path ahead. I truly enjoy the challenges that graduate school brings and the joys of overcoming those challenges.

The best advice I can give is for those that are considering applying to graduate school––research is key! Grades and GRE scores are considered (and important), but I believe the most important component in any application for graduate studies in biomedical sciences has got to be research experience. Not only will extensive research experience provide you with the reassurance that a research intensive graduate program is the right fit for you, but it shows dedication, resilience and passion, which is exactly what you want to convey to the admissions committee.

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